My name's Doraine, but you can call me annoyed

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TODAY a journalist got my name wrong. No matter that it was in a complimentary context, it has been niggling at me all day. It was as if I had been robbed of something - and not just two minutes of passing celebrity, either. In the first place, I did not much care for the name that had been substituted for my own, which is possibly unique. My mother, who had delusions of refinement, invented the name Dorene, to be pronounced with a sexy Gallic gurgle in the middle. My father, who would not have cared to know French, registered me as Doraine.

You would imagine, wouldn't you, that it would be impossible not to notice such a distinctive name, that it would always be transcribed correctly, precisely because it is unusual? Not so. I have been called Doreen, Denise, Dorothy or Lorraine. To my amazement, even the computerised bank statements that I have been receiving all my adult life suddenly started, a few months ago, to style me 'Deborah'. Was it possible that the keyboard operator could not believe the evidence of her eyes?

Yet names are important to those who bear them. They are, according to a psychology professor with the splendid name of Sheldon Jerome Korchin, our reference point of self-experience, setting us off from others, the symbol by which we are identified, addressed and placed in the organisation of the family and other social groups. This was properly recognised in a well-publicised case of child cruelty, in which an abused little girl thought her name was 'Oi' because she had never been called anything else. This was, considered, and rightly so, a serious example of unkindness.

One of the great indignities of being hospitalised is the assumption, by medical and nursing staff, that they may call you by your first or 'given' name. It is perhaps revealing that this does not happen if you are paying for your treatment. Older people, brought up in a more formal and courteous age, must find this particularly patronising. Since we do not have the French distinction between 'tu' and 'vous', it is all the more important that we should preserve the given name as a gift to bestow on those with whom we choose to be familiar.

There is, of course, something here beyond the question of courtesy or convention. A person's given name is so powerfully bound up with a sense of self that it is possible to feel positively superstitious about its use by others.

An academic friend of mine was once so appalled to be referred to, throughout a review, by his first name, that he never again put more than initials to his books. He felt threatened by an intimacy he had not invited.

Again, I can remember the intense loathing I felt for a midwife who insisted on calling my unborn baby 'Fred'. It was as if, in naming him, she had conferred upon him an identity that was totally alien to me and my family. I can still feel the wonderful relief of discovering that the baby was a girl, and not the changeling Fred.

The apparently irrational nature of these feelings springs from deep wells: there are primitive tribes who believe that simply cursing a man's name is enough to cause him real, physical harm. To name something is to give it an existence. When we forget people's names, it is as if we are forgetting them, and we are, rightly, embarrassed about it.

One of the most celebrated mysteries of the 19th century, and which has given rise to a wealth of imaginative literature, concerns a youth, found wandering and babbling incoherently, in Nuremberg in 1828. He could tell the authorities nothing about himself or his life up to that moment, but he did know his name. His name was Caspar Hauser. Would he have become so famous if he had been plain John Doe?